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UConn celebrates first season at Elliot Ballpark

Elliot Ballpark, tucked into a wooded hillside on Jim Calhoun Way at the University of Connecticut, may be overlooked at times—but not in 2021, as the Huskies baseball program celebrated its first season in a ballpark that’s been decades in the making.

UConn fielded many championship teams over 51 years spent playing at its old facility, J.O. Christian Field. But as facility standards have continued to evolve, the athletics department says there were some issues.

“That field was built in the late 1960s and there were no lights and no bathrooms,” said Evan Feinglass, the Associate Director of Athletics, Facilities Management and Planning. “It felt like you were at a park because it was a field with some bleachers around it. Drainage wasn’t the best and we were at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

Discussions for a new ballpark have been underway since the early 2000s and the school explored several ideas.

“The first ideas were to renovate or update the existing facility,” Feinglass said. “It was a natural grass field but it didn’t make sense to turf the field and build around it.”

So the athletics department decided to build a new ballpark for the Huskies baseball program. It’s one of several athletic facilities the school was looking to upgrade. In addition to building a new ballpark, UConn was also looking for someone who could design and build the complex, soccer stadium and performance center. Feinglass says RDG Planning and Design was selected for the project due to their experience developing projects for multiple sports and not just baseball. 

While designing this part of the athletics district, the locations of facilities changed.

“You could have expanded that side of the street in some way, shape, or form. As we looked at the spacing, the baseball and softball outfields backed up to each other,” Feinglass said. “When we did the planning, we decided to flip the softball field and rotate it in order to get amenities that worked together with the baseball complex.”

RDG Landscape Architect Jason Blome says the baseball field was the first of those projects to be built.

“Elliot Ballpark was the first to be completed because it was designed in a way to tuck itself into a woodland area on the southeast portion of the site,” Blome said.

He says the hillside creates a lot of flexibility seating spaces in a unique setting.

“There’s a hillside beyond right field and down the first -base line, which provides a different space for families. Young kids could play catch out there,” Blome said. “Right around the fringe of the new baseball site was a 50-feet vertical change from the right field wall to the parking lot. We shaved a little hillside away to use them for seating. If you’re in that part of the ballpark and look up, there are towering trees around you. The field lights are 80 feet tall and some of the trees are taller than them.”

When asked if there were specific amenities UConn wanted in the new ballpark, Feinglass said it was basics they were excited about: “To have running water and toilets that flush. At the old stadium, there were two dugouts and no bathrooms.”

Elliot Ballpark sports an Astroturf field and has a seating capacity of 1,351 with both seat backs and bleacher seating. The bullpens feature turf and dirt mounds. There’s a new press box with radio and TV booths. For the first time in program history, UConn can also play night games thanks to new lights in right field. In addition to the field, the Rizza Family Performance Center is adjacent to the ballpark. That’s where the locker rooms, player loungers, coaches’ offices, training room, weight room and hitting tunnels are. Having everything centrally located for the athletes was key.

“Before, the majority of our teams had a locker room in the field house which wasn’t next door,” Feinglass said. “The equipment room was there but they’d see the trainer in another building. They’d lift in another building. They’d have team meetings in another building. When we first started, we looked at where they walk to go to all of these places. Now everything is built into one home.”

The ballpark also honors several former Huskies players. Elliot Ballpark is named after Doug Elliot, who suited up as a catcher for UConn from 1979 to 1982. He was the lead donor on the project. The bullpen is named after Boston Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes. He was a 2011 All-American for the Huskies and donated $50,000 to the project.

Pausing The Celebration

Construction was completed in the fall of 2019 but just when the baseball team was ready to open its gates to fans, they had to be shut again due to the pandemic.

“I had my plane tickets booked to go to the first baseball game last spring in 2020 and that’s when everything just slowed down,” said Blome. “I can remember Harvard might have been one of the first to shut down and send their kids homes. This team has been waiting since the 2000s to get a new facility and then they had to push it another year.”

The Huskies were able to use the field last fall to prepare for the upcoming 2021 season. There were capacity limits for most of the season due to COVID-19 restrictions, but they were able to ramp up to full capacity by the end of the season. Like he was planning to the previous year, Blome returned to Elliot Ballpark to watch the Huskies play in their new facility.

“Their final home series was against Seton Hall and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. One of the best parts of my job is getting to go to facilities I’ve helped design to see how players look at the field,” Blome said. “They’re wide-eyed and look around in awe. They have this sense of this is our place and we get to play here every single day.”

As it turns out, 2021 was quite the year for the Huskies, who won the Big East regular-season title and postseason conference tournament. That meant an automatic entry into the NCAA baseball tourney, where a trip to the South Bend Regional yielded a win against the University of Michigan before losses to host Notre Dame and Central Michigan sent the Huskies home.

And with one project down, the Huskies athletics department is looking to the future by investing in their athletes.

“We’re just starting construction on our hockey rink facility. After that, we’ll work on renovating the field house. That will really transform the overall athletic portfolio on campus.”

Top photo by Graham Hebel, Graham Hebel Photography; second and third photos by Robert Benson; Robert Benson Photography.

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